Techdirt Sues ICE for Records Relating to Seizures of Website Domains

Washington, D.C. (May 23, 2019) – Cause of Action Institute (CoA Institute) today, on behalf of Floor64 and Techdirt, a media outlet that reports on technology, filed a complaint against U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) seeking records responsive to a FOIA request regarding ICE’s “Operation In Our Sites.” The government failed to provide any responsive records to Techdirt’s FOIA request – leaving them with no recourse but to sue the government.

Techdirt requested information about “Operation In Our Sites,” after the agency issued a press release touting its efforts to work with “high-profile industry representatives and anti-counterfeiting associations” to seize 1 million website domains. There are general concerns the sites, while allegedly offered counterfeit or copyrighted material, were seized without due process, and that federal law enforcement agents relied on industry representatives to identify the alleged website domains – raising the concern of actual or the appearance of cronyism.

James Valvo, counsel and senior policy advisor at CoA Institute, issued the following statement:

“This lawsuit and its underlying issues are why transparency and FOIA are so important. One million website domains were seized in partnership with corporate industry representatives, and the public deserves to know which sites were seized, the process by which they were taken to ensure due process, and the level of involvement corporate interests had on targeting sites to ensure the process was free of cronyism. These answers could be cleared up quickly if the government had responded properly to our client’s FOIA and produced responsive records.”

Techdirt is a news site, operated by Michael Masnick and Floor64, that relies on a proven economic framework to analyze and offer insight into news stories about changes in government policy, technology, and legal issues that affect companies’ ability to innovate and grow.

Michael Masnick, founder of Floor64 and editor of Techdirt, issued the following statement:

“At Techdirt, we’ve been following ICE’s questionable website seizures, based solely on input from a few corporations, for years — including the fact that it has had to quietly return many of the domains it improperly seized. It is quite worrisome that after those past mistakes, ICE has now chosen to completely hide the ball and ignore lawful FOIA requests to avoid scrutiny of its process for censoring websites.”

Background

In November 2018, ICE issued a press release touting its enforcement efforts in “Operation In Our Sites,” a global operation aiming to combat copyright-infringement, announcing the seizure of more than one million website domains through “combined efforts of law-enforcement agencies across the world, high-profile industry representatives and anti-counterfeiting associations.”

In response, Mr. Masnick of Techdirt submitted a FOIA request to the agency seeking access to the information ICE advertised in their release: a list of the domains seized, court filings relating to the seized domains, and email communications with the high-profile industry representatives and anti-counterfeiting associations mentioned.

ICE issued a determination in February 2019, stating that it had found no responsive records to Techdirt’s request. After a successful appeal, the FOIA request was remanded to the ICE FOIA Office, but the agency has failed to produce responsive records.

Complaint, Floor64 v. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement

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Media ContactMatt Frendewey, matt.frendewey@causeofaction.org | 202-699-2018

CoA urges release of secret 232 auto report in response to POTUS proclamation

CoA urges release of secret 232 auto report in response to POTUS proclamation

Washington, D.C. (May 17, 2019) – In response to the President’s proclamation concerning auto tariffs, Cause of Action Institute (CoA Institute), a nonpartisan government watchdog organization, urged the release of the Department of Commerce’s Section 232 auto tariff report. CoA Institute filed a freedom of information request for the report when it was finalized, and later sued the administration for failing to respond to the FOIA and release the report.

The President’s proclamation responded to the U.S. Department of Commerce Secretary’s final report regarding the Section 232 investigation into the national security impact of the import of foreign automobile and automobile parts.

James Valvo, counsel and senior policy advisor at Cause of Action Institute:

“Today’s proclamation by the President, summarizing the Department of Commerce’s Section 232 auto report, serves as the latest reminder that the public deserves to see this report, and we urge its immediate release. The report was paid for by taxpayers and its recommendations could harm American consumers and businesses. The public should not be kept in the dark about findings in a secret report, and that’s why Cause of Action Institute continues to fight for its release to ensure a robust debate on the merits.”

Background:

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Media ContactMatt Frendewey, matt.frendewey@causeofaction.org | 202-699-2018

Small business owners prevail, Court denies all damages sought by FTC

WASHINGTON D.C. (May 10, 2019) – In a major victory, Cause of Action Institute (CoA Institute) today, celebrated the decision by the U.S. District Court Middle District of Florida denying all damages against its client, small business owners Robert and Angelo Cupo and their business Vylah Tec LLC. In January 2019, the Court found Messrs. Cupo and Vylah Tec liable, however the Court denied all financial damages, decrying the government’s failure to support its demand and writing in its opinion, “[a]s this Court stated in trial, it is obvious that the disgorgement (financial penalty) total is a moving target.” The decision repeatedly chided the government for continually changing both the total damages sought and the basis for the calculations – both of these “moving targets” make it impossible for small business owners like the Cupos to defend. Today’s decision is a major blow to the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC), which had sought millions of dollars from the small business.

“Today’s decision serves as a rebuke to the Federal Trade Commission’s attempt to confiscate a small business owners’ property while completely ignoring the legal standards required to do so.” said John Vecchione, president and CEO of Cause of Action Institute. “While the Cupos and Vylah Tec may be the named parties, this victory should be celebrated by all small business owners and entrepreneurs who fear the Federal Trade Commission’s wrath, which too often treats small businesses more harshly than larger corporations, and by all supporters of the rule of law.”

Case background

After obtaining a secret court order in early 2017, the FTC targeted, Vylah Tec, LLC, a small family-run tech company and conducted an hours-long raid of the company’s headquarters on suspicion of “deceptive” sales practices because it bore a superficial resemblance to companies with illegitimate practices. The raid was initiated as part of a politically-hyped campaign known as Operation Tech Trap headed by the FTC in conjunction with the Florida Attorney General’s office. Failing to take into account Vylah Tec’s substantial well-regarded services, the government sought to shut the company down, depriving thousands of customers of pre-paid technical support services.

Not only did the FTC demand a freeze of assets of the defendants, but it also went so far as to demand a freeze of the jointly held marital assets of the wife of one of the defendants. After the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed this freeze, the FTC filed a new motion to recapture the same personal assets without the evidence needed in equity. The Court strongly rebuked the motion. In September, the government prevailed in finding Messrs Cupo and V-Tec liable for damages. However, as the Court found today, the government was unable to prove these damages.

The Vylah Tec case demonstrates the vast power of the federal government and the ability of the FTC to use a court order obtained in secret to deny a family-run company due process by swooping in and seizing assets—including the money they needed to hire a lawyer and mount a defense. Cause of Action Institute firmly believes a prosperous society allows all individuals, entrepreneurs, and companies an opportunity to succeed, but far too often when facing the FTC, companies or individuals have their livelihoods threatened and must defend themselves against a regulatory authority with near endless resources and no motive to render justice.

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Media ContactMatt Frendewey, matt.frendewey@causeofaction.org | 202-699-2018

CoA Calls on IG to Investigate Use of Government Owned Vehicles at EXIM Bank

Cause of Action Institute (CoA Institute), a nonpartisan government watchdog organization, sent a letter today to the Office of Inspector General (OIG) at the Export–Import Bank of the United States (EXIM Bank), requesting the EXIM Bank’s Inspector General investigate the use of government owned vehicles by EXIM Bank staff based on documents uncovered by Cause of Action Institute through a freedom of information request. The newly released documents reveal troubling evidence of EXIM Bank staff abusing the use of government owned vehicles.

Kevin Schmidt, director of investigations at Cause of Action Institute issued the following statement:

“We’re calling on the EXIM Bank’s Office of Inspector General to launch an investigation into what appears to be ongoing abuse and use of government vehicles by Bank staff.

“As a result of our own independent investigation, we’ve discovered what appears to be unauthorized use of government vehicles by Bank staff, lack of details in automobile use logs that are required under EXIM Bank policies, including staff leaving off the purpose for the use of government owned vehicles.

“As a financial institution with the power to hand out billions of dollars in federally subsidized and backed loans to corporations, all taxpayers should be concerned that the bank staff cannot seem to follow standard government automobile use protocols that are designed to prevent abuse and protect tax dollars.”

EXIM Bank’s OIG had previously investigated this matter in 2016, producing a report that included a detailed list of deficiencies by the Bank and Bank staffs’ use of government owned vehicles.

Letter and exhibits to the EXIM Bank’s Office of Inspector General

Questionable Vehicle Use

Ex-Im Vehicle Use Policy

2019.4.3 FOIA Request to Ex-Im Bank Vehicle Use

 

 

 

Cause of Action Institute Secures Rare Preservation Order in Fight to Obtain DOJ Records Created on Personal Email Account

Government official caught using personal email to conduct official business ordered to maintain copies of all records in Gmail account

Washington, D.C. (April 26, 2019) – Cause of Action Institute (CoA Institute), a nonpartisan government watchdog organization, today announced it had secured a rare federal court order requiring a former U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) employee to preserve the contents of her personal email account, which had been used to conduct official agency business. Those records may be subject to later release.

Ryan Mulvey, counsel for CoA Institute, issued the following statement:

“Government transparency is a fundamental necessity in a free and open society. The use of personal devices to conduct official business remains a serious concern, resulting in records being lost, unsecured, or improperly destroyed. In some cases, personal email accounts are used to avoid disclosure altogether. This court order is an important reminder to all government employees to avoid using personal email and devices and adhere to all relevant agency rules and government transparency statutes. It also is a warning to agencies to ensure that they meet their record-keeping obligations.”

U.S. District Court Judge Amit Mehta granted Cause of Action’s motion, ordering the U.S. Department of Justice to require a former employee, Sarah Isgur Flores, not to delete any emails stored in her personal Gmail account, and to store copies of the account’s contents onto a thumb drive or other storage device, including all emails in archived or deleted folders. The Court also ordered Ms. Flores to maintain the emails until further instructed, and gave the U.S. Department of Justice until May 2, 2019 to provide notice of its compliance with the preservation order. Although the issuance of such a preservation order is rather rare, it is the latest example in a developing trend. Federal courts have become increasingly concerned about the use of personal email to conduct agency business, and they are taking serious the possible loss or destruction of government records that may be subject to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and other federal records management statutes, including the Federal Records Act.

Background

In 2017, media reports indicated that Sarah Isgur Flores, then-spokeswoman for Attorney General Jeff Sessions, used her personal email to issue official statements on behalf of the government. Due to concerns that this sort of behavior could harm the public’s access to official records, and in light of past instances of personal email having been used as a way to conceal public information, Cause of Action Institute filed a FOIA request for Ms. Flores official work-related emails sent or received through her personal devices or accounts. After waiting more than 18 months for a response, CoA Institute sued DOJ to force the disclosure of the Flores records.

On September 27, 2018, DOJ responded, “As is evident from the enclosed records, Ms. Flores forwarded emails sent to her personal account to her official Department of Justice email account, including through an automatic forward. As such, all of these emails were located pursuant to our search of Ms. Flores’ official Department of Justice email account.”

However, within the 112 pages produced by DOJ, the original email issued by Ms. Flores, as reported by members of the press, was missing. Despite raising this issue with DOJ, the government insisted the 112 pages were a full-and-complete record. As a result, and after learning of Ms. Flores’s departure from public service, CoA Institute filed a motion, urging the court to compel DOJ and Ms. Flores to preserve all relevant records.

Late on Thursday, April 25, the Court granted CoA Institute’s motion in full, compelling the government to coordinate with Ms. Flores to preserve her personal email account and maintain copies pending further court proceedings.

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CoA Institutes’s Motion for Preservation Order

Federal Court’s Order for Preservation of Records 

Related Stories:

 

 

 

Cause of Action Institute leads diverse coalition in filing Supreme Court amicus brief in FMI v. Argus Leader

Urges Court to follow the text and strike a wise balance when examining Exemption 4 within the Freedom of Information Act

Today, Cause of Action Institute, a nationally recognized government watchdog organization with a specialty in government transparency, led an ideologically diverse coalition in filing an amicus brief involving Exemption 4 of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), a statute the Court rarely interprets. The brief, filed before the U.S. Supreme Court, urges the Court to improve and clarify how Exemption 4 is applied. This particular exemption protects “trade secrets and commercial or financial information obtained from a person [that is] privileged or confidential.”

The case has the potential to upset the status quo and drastically expand the use of this exemption – meaning more information that was otherwise public could now be withheld from disclosure. The coalition’s amicus brief urges the Court to strike a sound balance by clarifying and improving the competitive-harm test, eliminating the Critical Mass distinction, confirming an objective test for determining confidential information, and ensuring Exemption 4 takes into account some reputational harms that could occur if confidential information is disclosed.

James Valvo, counsel and senior policy advisor for Cause of Action issued the following statement:

“It’s rare to see the Supreme Court take a FOIA case, and far more rare that the case deals with the specifics of Exemption 4. But good government is government that is transparent and open. This is perhaps why it is so critical that the Court uses this opportunity to clarify how Exemption 4 is applied, to ensure the public’s right to information is protected while not harming legitimate commercial concerns. The existing standards to determine what information falls within or out of the scope of Exemption 4 has created a confusing web that does a disservice to spirit of the FOIA.”

In addition to Cause of Action Institute, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, FOIA Advisor, Open the Government, and the Project on Government Oversight signed the amicus brief.

The amicus brief specifically asks the Court to:

  • Address and interpret the term “confidential,” as used under Exemption 4, to bring it into harmony with the statutory text and its historical usage in other legal contexts and confirm an objective test for determining the confidentiality of commercial or financial information;
  • Eliminate the National Parks standard that the impairment of the government’s ability to collect information is a justification for withholding information as unnecessary and duplicative;
  • Eliminate the atextual distinction created in Critical Mass between information that is obtained through voluntary or compulsory means; and
  • Ensure Exemption 4 protects against certain types of reputational harm that have a negative impact on competitive standing.

Summary:

All records subject to the FOIA should be disclosed to the public unless the federal government cites one of nine exemptions. This case specially deals with Exemption 4, which concerns, “Trade secrets or commercial or financial information that is confidential or privileged.”

FOIA Exemption 4, exempts from disclosure “confidential” commercial or financial information that the government obtains from a person. But the FOIA does not define “confidential.” The meaning of that term cannot be derived from bare dictionary definitions. “Confidential” instead must be understood in light of its historical usage in other legal contexts and in the FOIA. Persuasive canons of statutory interpretation counsel the Court to take that approach. Petitioner’s overbroad understanding of “confidential” ignores legal history, deviates from the interpretative methodology accepted for other terms in Exemption 4, and would render the whole of Exemption 4 surplusage by swallowing up the independent meanings of “trade secret” and “privileged.”

The proper meaning of “confidential” covers information that, if made public, would cause competitive harm to its source. This meaning is rooted in the common law and the nature of confidential relationships. But history is not the only basis for this understanding. In other legal contexts, construing the phrase “confidential information” frequently involves some form of harm analysis. From judicial records and the Bankruptcy Code, to the Rules of Civil Procedure and this Court’s precedents on FOIA Exemptions 5 and 7, legal context demonstrates the inadequacy of Petitioner’s dictionary-bound approach to Exemption 4.

This case also presents the Court with an opportunity to clarify other aspects of Exemption 4. Although amici ask the Court to uphold the competitive-harm justification of National Parks, they also ask the Court to eliminate the government-impairment justification, abandon the distinction between information submitted voluntarily or under compulsion, reiterate that competitive harm is analyzed under an objective test, and accept reputational harms that impact competitive standing as cognizable under Exemption 4.

As the Court considers this case, it should do so consistent with its precedent for interpreting the FOIA. The Court has recognized that the FOIA is essential to “ensure an informed citizenry, vital to the functioning of a democratic society,” and that it contains a “strong presumption in favor of disclosure. To ensure that citizens have access to information and to honor the strong presumption of disclosure, FOIA exemptions “must be ‘narrowly construed.”

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Media ContactMatt Frendewey, matt.frendewey@causeofaction.org | 202-699-2018

 

Cause of Action Sues Commerce Dept. for Failing to Release Auto-Tariff Report

Washington, D.C. (Mar. 21, 2019) – Cause of Action Institute (CoA Institute) filed a lawsuit against the Department of Commerce (Commerce) for failing to respond to two Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests seeking a copy of the Commerce Secretary’s final report to the President regarding the Section 232 investigation into the national security impacts of the Administration’s proposed foreign automobile tariffs. The Commerce Department has previously stated that it will not make the report public. In an effort to increase transparency and protect Americans’ economic freedom, CoA Institute filed a FOIA request so the public can see the report, but Commerce did not produce it within the statutory timeline.

James Valvo, counsel and senior policy advisor at Cause of Action Institute:

“Commerce claims that the information contained in their report justifies the proposed auto-tariffs, but the government refuses to release this report.  The public should not have to take the government’s word that the report supports tariffs when the administration withholds the document it claims supports its position. The tariffs will harm American consumers and businesses, and the public has a right to see the information contained in the report. We are dedicated to placing this vital information into the public sphere, ensuring that the government complies with its statutory obligations, and we look forward to a robust debate about the merits of the report.”

The Section 232 National Security Investigation of Imports of Automobiles, Including Cars, SUVs, Vans and Light Trucks, and Automotive Parts will provide recommendations for the Administration’s proposal to impose a 25% tariff on imports of cars and car parts. CoA Institute sent requests to both the Department of Commerce and the Bureau of Industry and Security for a copy of this report.

Background:

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Media ContactMatt Frendewey, matt.frendewey@causeofaction.org | 202-699-2018